I'm not preaching this week, but... it's a tough one and for those looking to make some sense out of what Jesus has to say for yet another challenging Sunday in the Gospel of Matthew, here is a sermon I wrote for my preaching class a few years back, with some exegetical notes at the bottom. Hope it helps!
He puts on his polished shoes that are double-knotted so they stay secure all day. His freshly pressed black shirt buttoned up to the collar with his name embroidered into the pocket. His badge gleaming on the other pocket. His belt is loaded up and secure with the tools he will need for the work day. A radio, a baton, hand cuffs,a flashlight, spare batteries, a pair of gloves, and a Glock 22 gun that he just finished cleaning and securing into it's holster along with a spare magazine of bullets.
This image of a police officer generates different emotional reactions for everyone. Feelings deep down in our guts. For me, I was taught to trust police, to call them if there’s a problem and they will help. In police, I have experienced safety and protection.
When I was 18, my car was hit in a snowstorm by a semi-truck on interstate 80 between Des Moines Iowa and Iowa City in December 2007 as I was travelling home for an event with my family. The semi pushed me down the highway and into the median. I called the police immediately after stumbling out of my vehicle. As soon as an officer arrived at the scene, he rolled down his window and asked me, “are you ok?” I burst out into tears at his words and he asked me to get into his vehicle to get out of the blizzard while he assessed the situation. I did. It felt safe and comfortable to me there. He then gave me a ride the 60 miles from where I was stranded to where I needed to go to meet my mother. I felt safe. That was my experience.
Each person in this room had a different internal reaction to how I described the police officer and a different reaction to my story. Who is the police to you? Someone that you can find safety and protection in? Or someone you have been taught to fear by those close to you or by your experiences?
The church can also draw out these same very different, very real, reactions. To some the church is a safe place, a place where they have experienced love and joy. A place where you held hands with other kids and sang songs about God’s love. A place where you could go for help in times of need for security and comfort.
Or was church a place where you were told there’s something wrong with you? Was it a place where a nun would hit you across the hands with a ruler for speaking your mind? Was church a place where you were told what exactly you had to do or exactly what you could not do or could not BE in order to be a “good Christian”? Or someone has literally walked into the church you thought was safe with a gun and began shooting?
Our experiences is what builds our reaction. Our response to something, that feeling deep down in our guts comes from our experiences. Whether or not a police officer sparks a safe or fearful response in us depends on where we were raised, what we were taught to believe, who we are, what we have seen on the news, and individual interactions that have accumulated throughout our lives.
Many people experience the church just this way as well. A young transgender man being told that his very being is wrong by a pastor. A soldier being told that God cannot love him because he served 2 tours in Afghanistan and committed atrocities. A lesbian couple being told that the church won’t baptize their child because he was born in sin. A black man sitting in the back of a very white church getting side eyes and fake smiles because he clearly doesn’t belong there.
These are all stories that have been shared with me. Experiences that do not speak of love and safety in the church. How, then, might these individuals respond? What is their gut saying to them?
The master distributes money to each of the slaves based what the master perceives is their ability to handle the money. In this apocalyptic parable by Matthew we get this very strange set up to a situation. Already, they are not seen equally. Already these individuals are getting different treatment by their master.
And to the two to whom the master has already treated with higher regard than the third slave, go out and make fruitful and multiply their master’s money. And in their master they find great reward. Do they find love and security in their master? Is that their motivation? Are they sent forth with grace and peace and love from their master? It appears that the master is good to them, so they are good to their master.
And the third slave, to whom the master has already set below the others, does not prosper. This slave is scared. This slave has experienced his master in a much different way than the others. He was told that he is less than. He is told that he is not worthy of as much as his fellow slaves. His experiences cause him to react in fear. His fight or flight instincts have kicked in and he hides the money. Perhaps fearful what his master would do to him if he lost this money. And as his master responds to him negatively, aggressively, continuing to sink him lower below the others because he did not make the master more money. And this slave reacts, reacts in anger. His fight or flight instinct has turned into fight against his master. Because this is not a good and gracious master to him.
This parable is drawing us to share and multiply the gifts from God, advance the kingdom on earth, share the good news, and magnify the love. And what about the one who is not entrusted with love? Who reacts in fear. The one who has experienced pain and anxiety at the hands of the church? What then?
**David Lose said about this parable in 2011, “Now, it may be that the master is indeed all the things the servant fears -- certainly [the master’s] actions do little to dissuade us of the validity of the servant's impressions. Yet might the master be reacting as much to the servant's characterization of him and his consequent lack of faith? I'm not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that what we expect -- of a given situation, event, or person -- very much determines our experience.”
This challenging parable reminds us that we are not all the same. We have not all been given even footing, that we have not all had fruitfully multiplying experiences of love in the church. Many identify with the first slave, being blessed with gifts and multiplying and blessing others with these gifts.
And just as many identify with the last slave, already feeling behind and experience life through lenses of fear and distrust. Because they received less trust. The author of Matthew calls this slave out as “worthless”.
How does that sit with you? What reactions does this draw from your gut? It sits horribly with me. Because in this parable, I don’t think we have quite gotten to the gospel yet.
Turn the page.
The ending of this chapter in Matthew tells us, “ when I was hungry you gave me food,
when i was thirsty you gave me something to drink,
when I was a stranger you welcomed me,
when I was naked you gave me clothes,
when I was sick you took care of me,
and when I was in prison you visited me.
Because when you did this for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber from Denver, Colorado said when she first was introduced to Lutheranism that she fell in love with it because she experienced that these people took seriously these words from Matthew 25. She was coming out of a place of addiction, depression, and persecution by her own church. And for the first time felt love, safety, and comfort in the church.
This is what the Gospel of Matthew leaves us with right before passion narrative begins. If you have been given plenty, go and serve others likewise. To those that haven’t been given this footing: feed, give, clothe, take care of, visit. For you do this unto me. This what it means to be a servant of the gospel.
This narrative of fear can be loud, it can be strong, it can take over our lives and it can be the overwhelming narrative of our stories and the world we live in. This call to be a servant to the gospel, to take seriously these words from Matthew 25, is to surround others with this gift of love. To change the narrative of fear and violence in the church and to change the narrative of fear and violence in this world so that all may live abundantly and may live to know the love of God. Amen.
The 3rd slave describes the master as:
σκληρὸς (Matt. 25:24 BGT) ‘unyielding in nature’, of a pers. difficult, hard Mt 25:24; Ac 9:4 v.l., 6 v.l.; 26:14; of wind, strong Js 3:4; of an uncompromising saying difficult, hard J 6:60; abrasive words harsh Jd 15. of words harsh, unpleasant, hard to take, intolerable
3rd Slave Responds:
φοβηθεὶς (Matt. 25:25 BGT) (1) be afraid, become frightened; (a) absolutely be frightened, be alarmed, be afraid (MT 10.31); φοβεῖσθαι ἀπό τινος be afraid of someone (MT 10.28a); with an infinitive following be afraid to, shrink back from doing something (MT 1.20); (b) transitively fear someone (JN 9.22); fear something (HE 11.23)
ἀπελθὼν (Matt. 25:25 BGT) to draw back, to go away
ἔκρυψα (Matt. 25:25 BGT) conceal, keep from view
he “recoils in fear, draws back, and conceals the talent.”
How is his fear driving his decisions? FIght or Flight?
What do we hide or hide from when we are scared? Do we hide ourselves? Pieces of ourselves?
Hide from God pieces of ourselves that God in fact gave us? Gave us to share/multiply/ make fruitful
Verse 29 “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” ← give more to the “haves” and take from the “have-nots”?! No sharing, distribution of wealth, giving to those that are in need?
Ok, so the master says from the beginning that he gives them the talents based on their own ability to handle them. So he doesn’t believe in the abilities of the 3rd slave as much as the other two, only giving him 1 talent. Master thinks this is the idiot slave to begin with?
Then we see that this slave is scared of his master, describing him as a shady guy. And out of fear, hides the talent. Is he scared what his master will do to him if he loses it?
So he lashes out at his master? Calling him names and calling him out on his business ethic. What does this say about the slave? Is he bold? Indignant? Upholding some kind of justice?
And then he is punished for this. Divinely. What does this say about the kingdom of God? To multiply the gifts we are given in this life? Sure. But what else does it say, if we don’t then we are damned? Ok, but this slave doesn’t seem to have even footing than the rest. Does that make a difference? Does his fear and declaration that his master is unjust not mean anything?
What are the responses from the other two slaves? We don’t seem to get any feelings from them. Maybe they are totally satisfied with their master. Maybe they see their master as good and kind. Maybe they feel safe with their master and want to please him. Or maybe they are so scared of their master that they do exactly what the master says without question.
David Lose, 2011, “Now, it may be that the master is indeed all the things the servant fears -- certainly his actions do little to dissuade us of the validity of the servant's impressions. Yet might the master be reacting as much to the servant's characterization of him and his consequent lack of faith -- playing, as it were, the role assigned to him -- as he is revealing his true character? I'm not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that what we expect -- of a given situation, event, or person -- very much determines our experience.”
a. What type of writing is the text? Apocalyptic Parable
b. Where does the text lie within the larger book? Sits in Matthew in the middle of Parable of 10 Virgins and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. We have just heard about the destruction of the temple of Jesus is warning everyone about end times. It come right before he is betrayed and killed.
c. What places does it serve in the story unfolding around it? Jesus is teaching about the end times. What is to come, how to get to heaven, etc.
Look at the Historical Context
a. Who wrote the text? Unknown
b. When was it written? Post destruction of the temple in 70 CE
c. Why was it written? Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ fulfilment of the prophecy
d. Where was it written? We don’t know.
e. To whom was it written? Jewish christians attempting to find identity as christians and not as Jews. Also they were figuring out how they felt about gentiles being christians and what that would look like for them.
Respond to the text:
What is the text saying to you? Many see a God and a church of love. A place that is safe, welcoming, and encouraging. But not all. To some, the church is scary, it's hurtful, it judges, puts stipulations on our grace, tells us we aren’t good enough. Our experiences shape what the church is to us. We react to the master based on our experiences. Where is the church not giving? Where is the church taking love and security away from those that already are in short supply of that? What other parts of society are like this?
What does it have the potential to say to your congregation? As God’s kingdom on earth, where does the church look like this? Is it a pretty picture? Our experiences shape how we perceive the church and thus our reaction to it. Some react out of a place of safety and love. Some are fearful and hide. MAYBE some are even so fearful that they obey unquestioningly.